Exceptional EA showcases Real Careers, in which administrators from around the globe generously share the benefit of their experience. We’ve made virtual trips to 21 countries to date: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, the USA and Wales.
Emily Walker is Executive Assistant to the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, Scholarship and Knowledge Transfer at Liverpool John Moores University. Here’s a look at her world.
Coffee and Classics
I wake at 6:30 a.m. and have a quick scan of my email inbox to check that there’s nothing urgent to respond to. I try to energize myself by doing my Jillian Michaels workout DVD a few times a week before a quick shower and heading off to work. I like to indulge in a fresh skinny decaff latte from my coffee maker. I rarely eat breakfast at home, so it’s usually just a coffee on my commute.
I commute to work by train, which usually takes me 20-25 minutes – but there’s currently track renewal work going on for the next six months and so it’s taking me about an hour to get in to the office. On the upside, I’m having to walk further to work so it’s helping me reach my daily step target much quicker.
Who or what is on your commuting playlist/podcast? It depends on my mood but I love to listen to classical music as I work, so 90% of my iPod is classical; lots of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler and Mozart. If I’m not in the mood for classical music, it’s usually American folk singer songwriter Bonnie Prince Billy.
At the Office
Morning Routines: My first routine is to check the calendars of the Pro-Vice Chancellors to see what they have scheduled. Whilst I am dedicated to one PVC, each of the Executive Supports will cover the office if one has to attend a meeting, and so it’s important to know what the other PVCs have in their diaries. Following that I will go through my to-do list and prioritise the items I need to accomplish for that day. Once I’ve done that, I will quickly go through my emails and my PVC’s emails and respond to messages appropriately before tackling my more project-based work. My first meeting each Monday morning is with my PVC to discuss the priorities for the week ahead and catch up on any outstanding business from the week before.
Primary Responsibilities: As the executive support to the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, Scholarship and Knowledge Transfer, a lot of my work revolves around the work done by our Research Innovation Service. I am secretary to several University committees and working groups. I run the University Scholarship scheme, which is open to applications from February each year. I oversee the whole process from the application stage right through to the admissions of the successful students in September/October. It is a very competitive scholarship scheme, so I deal with a vast amount of enquiries from staff and students on a daily basis.
I also run the Vice Chancellor awards for staff. This is a great process to be involved in as I get to survey all the superlative research that is being done across the University, and it’s lovely to be able to inform staff that they’ve been nominated by their peers for an award … or that they’ve won. As well, I oversee the match funded scholarship, which is a scheme to promote knowledge exchange with external companies.
As is the case for a lot of Executive Assistants, there isn’t a typical day as such. Whilst there will always be the elementary facets of the role to attend to such as responding to emails, managing the diary, dealing with telephone enquiries and servicing committee meetings, I also have a number of projects which I am responsible for.
How long is your work day? It’s usually a typical eight-hour day, but can be longer depending upon the business need, such as an evening dinner reception or evening guest lecture to oversee.
The University provided an adjustable stand desk and offers staff and students free gym memberships
Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? I’m lucky that I have a really supportive employer, so when I requested a stand up desk I was able to order one right away. It’s adjustable so that I can stand for most of the day and sit later in the afternoon when my feet get tired. I definitely feel better not having sat down all day. Before I got my stand up desk, I could be sitting down for eight hours straight and would go home with a numb bottom! I’ve noticed that my step count is higher on my activity monitor now, too. The University also offers staff and students free gym membership.
What might be a typical lunch? I do try to take half an hour to pop out or to read a book but, in reality, I work through most days, eating at my desk.
Do you work from home in your “off” hours, or during your commute? It’s workload dependent so, if I have a lot on, I will often work beyond my scheduled hours. Because we have flexible working, though, I can recoup the time during quieter periods. I feel I have a good work-life balance.
I do check emails out of hours but it’s not something that is expected of me and it wouldn’t be a problem if, for example, I didn’t respond to an email over the weekend.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? As an executive assistant, you are all things to all people. You are an advisor, a counsellor, a mentor, an observer, a reporter, a project manager, a crisis manager, a risk manager, the person who gets things done … and often the font of all knowledge. The difficulty can come in not knowing what role will be expected of you at any given moment of time. You can plan for a day of quietly typing up minutes, but end up firefighting a crisis. You have to constantly re-prioritise according to necessity.
The EA’s role: advisor, counsellor, mentor, observer, reporter, project/crisis/risk manager
What do you most enjoy about your career? I enjoy being the task finisher. I feel a sense of achievement from being efficient, effective and productive. As someone who prioritises an environment of harmony and cooperation, I feel it’s the skill of a good assistant to be adroit at defusing conflicts and tension. I enjoy the autonomy of the role as it provides the freedom to pursue goals and objectives in my own way. I know that my PVC trusts me to work independently on his behalf in his presence and in his absence.
On Saying “No”
As a people pleaser, I have often been guilty of being a “yes” person. I can admit that I want people to think well of me and to think that I am tremendously efficient. I am learning to get better at handling requests and feel that I am experienced enough now to say that I will reflect on my current workload and will assist if I have the capacity to do so – whilst maintaining the ability to say “no” if I don’t.
I was born on the Wirral Peninsula, which is just across the River Mersey from Liverpool. However, my mother is from Singapore and I spent two years working in Japan after my degree, so I’ve always felt part of a global community and a sense of multicultural identity.
At heart, are you a city mouse or a country mouse? I enjoying holidaying in the countryside because I love peace and quiet. It was one of the reasons I chose to go to university in Wales, so that I could have long country walks in the hills. Now that I work in Liverpool, though, I enjoy the buzz of the city. There’s always something going on and there are lots of brilliant museums and galleries. As a modern civic university, LJMU has a number of cultural partnerships which mean that staff and students get free or discounted tickets to the TATE Gallery, the Liverpool Philharmonic and the Everyman and Royal Court Theatres.
How long have you been an admin. professional? I have been an administrative professional for eleven years now. Your first such role? My first administrative role was as an office temp covering for a PA who was on maternity leave. She decided not to return to work, and I was made permanent as the PA to the Director of Biological and Earth Sciences.
A good assistant is adroit at defusing conflicts and tension
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? I play the viola in two orchestras, which equates to six hours rehearsal time a week. I try to attend several spin classes as it’s one of the few exercises that I really love and have been able to stick at. I am a total bookworm, so reading is a huge passion of mine. Additionally, I have a deep affection for museums and galleries. My other passion is travel and I get itchy feet if I don’t have any travels planned.
How do you decompress or reward yourself after a tough day or week? With a large glass of red wine!
A dream holiday or travel adventure? My ideal holidays are a mix of beach relaxation and sightseeing tours full of art, history and culture. I am lucky that I have been able to travel a lot and have been to most countries in Europe and Asia. I did an awe-inspiring tour of China last year and seeing the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors and the adorable pandas of Chengdu was just incredible. I also love to revisit Italy for the stunning landscapes of the Amalfi Coas,t and the art and architecture of Florence. I once spent eight hours in the Louvre and the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, and consider that to be a great day and time well spent!
Peer and Professional Associations: I’ve recently become a member of The PA Hub, and I am also looking to do some administrative qualifications through the Institute of Administrative Management over the next few months.
Networks: vital in reassessing my own perceptions of my role and its importance in my organisation
How have these networks or associations helped you? I feel these networks have been vital in reassessing my own perceptions of my role and its importance in my organisation. The training provided by some networks has really elevated, motivated and inspired me. I am aware of a lot more training opportunities. Whilst my organisation is brilliant at providing a wide range of in-house training, it is not specifically designed for Executive Assistants – or is very basic, covering topics such as “How to take Minutes”. So, it’s been great to be able to access resources and training from experienced trainers who fully understand the role.
The Digital Age, and Evolution of the Assistant’s Role
Do you publish to, and/or monitor web or social media content as part of your professional responsibilities? I am the content manager for the University’s Scholarship scheme, so I keep the information on this webpage current. I like to promote the research going on within the University on Twitter, as there is some really innovative work going on that is going to go some way to answering the societal challenges of the 21st century. I also use Twitter to share details of the University’s public lecture series and any other events that are going on.
What are your preferred forms of social media? I love Twitter for keeping up to date with the news and for that instantaneous reaction when a story breaks. It’s also been brilliant for expanding my PA/EA network. There are so many brilliant PAs on Twitter on hand with advice, a motivational quote or recommendations. I also use Pinterest, as it’s great for visual inspiration and collecting ideas from hairstyles to homewares.
Now that I am connecting globally with other administrative professionals … social media is making me a better executive assistant
Describe any impacts social media has had on the role you hold within your organisation. Now that I am connecting globally with other administrative professionals, I can honestly say that social media is making me a better executive assistant. I’ve been made aware of training opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of. I also like to follow Executive Secretary Magazine’s #AdminChat hashtag on Twitter. When I have to work late on Thursday evenings, I get free training from industry professionals. I have to mention Exceptional EA as well, for its wide range of resources and inspiration.
Tell us about both the positive and adverse impacts that 24:7 availability via smartphones, etc. may have had on your quality of life. It’s all too easy to check your emails outside work hours, and you have to be careful that you’re not doing it 24/7 if it starts to have a detrimental effect on other areas of your life. The main positives I find are having a multi-functional but compact tool in your pocket. I have used my phone to take photos of meeting spaces, which I’ve then been able to send to my PVC instantly via WhatsApp. I use my smartphone as a recording device, a calendar, a reminder service and for social media messaging when I just have to tweet something inspirational I’ve seen or heard.
Are the meetings you coordinate or attend primarily digital (relying on portals and/or PDFs of meeting materials), or paper-based? Our organisation and my PVC in particular are very environmentally aware, so I don’t produce copies of meeting papers at all. All our committee members have laptops for viewing documents electronically. All of our meeting rooms also have screens for this purpose.
I don’t produce copies of meeting papers at all. All our committee members have laptops for viewing documents electronically.
Does your organisation make use of an intranet/SharePoint or other web portals? All of our University committees now have SharePoints which are updated and maintained by the committee secretary. It’s an easy way of sharing papers and documentation with committee members without clogging up inboxes with large files.
Digital Innovation and Disruption
Let’s talk about the pace of change in the admin. world in general. When it comes to technological developments, I’m all for resources that make life a little easier. I’m getting better at making use of the functionality of my smartphone for business purposes, and I also find having an iPad really useful in meetings when you quickly need to check a date or reference a document. Moreover, a tablet is greater for portability and for Skyping on the go.
Travel or travel planning recommendations? I am a big fan of using the Outlook calendar for travel scheduling. My PVC prefers to have all his information available electronically, and rarely likes to take printed documentation. The benefit of using the calendar to record his flight times, transfer details and hotel information is that you can set the calendar to the local time of the country they are visiting, so that the timings are accurate to their locale. Always keep a scanned copy of your executive’s passport information page and a log of any travel visas for anticipating when they will expire, as some visas take a lot longer to process than others.
What apps or programs do you and/or your principal/executive find useful for travelling and for tracking expenses? My organisation uses an electronic system for travel booking and processing staff expenses and travel expenses, which is great for seeing at what stage a claim is at in the process. You also can’t beat the internet for quick, accessible information for journey planning, checking reviews of accommodation, etc.
Style and Substance
What might we find in your desk drawer? Lots of notebooks, calculator, paracetamol, a hairbrush, hand cream, tissues, perfume and business cards
Role models or mentors? My role model and mentor is the team leader from my previous role, Wendy. She is just fabulous. Despite having an exceedingly heavy workload as Senior PA to the Executive Dean of Science, she always made time for 1:1 meetings with all the PAs on her team.
Emily’s role model and mentor Wendy leads by example, raises her team up and pushes them forward to achieve … and more
She leads by example, is always willing to provide hands-on help in addition to providing advice and guidance. She raises her team up, fights their corner when necessary, and pushes them forward to achieve. I wouldn’t have been promoted to the role I am currently in without having had the solid training that Wendy provided me with and I’m grateful to have her friendship.
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I’m proud of the transition I’ve made from being a Director’s PA to Executive Support to a Pro-Vice Chancellor. Being part of the management team at corporate headquarters was a completely new environment for me when I took on this role 22 months ago.
I have really been able to make the role my own
I feel that I have really been able to make the role my own. For example, although the Scholarship scheme had been running for some time, there was no defined process. I was able to implement new processes and provide training to the finance and admissions teams to ensure that procedures were streamlined.
Talking to Executives
Imagine that a cohort of executives invited discussion of the business case for working with (or without) an executive assistant. Anticipate that they’re tech savvy, and that some may have dated perceptions of what a skilled assistant can bring to the table. How do you make the case for having an EA, MA or PA on the payroll to enhance the success of the executive and the organisation?
Do you value your time? The greatest gift I as an effective assistant will give you is the time and freedom to achieve your goals. I will do those everyday tasks such as managing your calls, diaries, travel and expenses but I will also provide perspective and guidance. I am a wealth of information developed over years of experience. I have connections throughout all hierarchies of the organisation, and can obtain inside information that you would never be party to. I am trained and skilled. With this in mind, can you be as effective as I am or would your time be better spent alternatively?
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. Be prepared. It’s an old adage but it’s apt. You need to do your background research not only on the role you are applying for, but the people you will be working with and the organisation itself. If you’re having a Skype interview, you can hide Post-its around your screen with key phrases you want to mention.
Job interviews: Do your background research not only on the role, but also on the people and the organisation
Your most effective time management strategy? I am someone who likes to work to deadlines. If you have a large project to oversee, you need to set yourself mini goals to achieve by certain points in the project timeline. Keep your email notifications turned off so that you can retain focus on what you are working on. Have a list of priorities and keep that to do list updated.
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? If you are new to working with an executive, you may need to change your mindset. When you are an executive assistant, you should not be working reactively. You do not wait for your executive to designate tasks you create your own work. You are proactive, you plan ahead, you anticipate their needs before they even realise it is a need. You protect their reputation, and how they are perceived can also reflect on you. If your executive is late submitting their report, are you effectively managing their time? They may be the executive, but sometimes you need to be the one to direct their activity to ensure they are achieving their goals.
An EA should not be working reactively; you are proactive, planning ahead and anticipating needs before they’re even realised
Always schedule time to meet with your executive face to face. These conversations are not only important for prioritising work and accomplishing actions, but also for building a deeper level of understanding about each other and the way you work together. It can also be valuable time for your executive to use you as a sounding board, to explore ideas or just to have a trusted confidant to talk to.
Always schedule time to meet face to face with your executive
For those interested in promotion: Talk to people in your organisation who are in the roles you are interested in. Ask to shadow them to see what the role involves and whether it is something you would enjoy. Talk to your line manager about training and development opportunities. If your organisation has a Personal Development review process, use this as an opportunity to set personal goals and objectives.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Emily mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
To explore a range of resources recommended by readers, click here for Exceptional EA’s Resources Page or click here to see all professional associations and networks recommended by peers.